On the surface, “American Moor,” written by and starring Keith Hamilton Cobb, is about a veteran African-American actor auditioning to play Othello for a clueless young, white director. On a deeper level, Cobb’s play offers several sets of insights. It is a Shakespearean actor’s take on Othello – his journey towards understanding the character, and what feels like the personal relationship he’s developed with him. This journey is enhanced by Cobb’s terrific, deep-voiced performance, both as the actor, and as the actor delivering delicious slivers from Shakespeare.
It is also an exploration of the perilous, sometimes putrid waters even an experienced actor (especially an experienced actor?) must navigate to pursue his craft and his profession.
But above all, “American Moor” is shot through with observations and declarations about what it’s like to be a black man in America.
In a variation of W.E.B. Dubois’s concept of double consciousness – that African-Americans are forced to view themselves through the eyes of their white countrymen – the actor says to the audience at one point: “An American Black man burns a whole lotta calories trying to keep a rein on full half of himself just so people around him don’t get nervous.”
Even the observations about being a black man are mostly from the specific perspective of a black actor. The playwright has named his actor character Keith, which is his own name, and a clue that “American Moor” is likely autobiographical. It’s easy to feel that Cobb’s play is the culmination of decades of frustration.
“Ya know, when you’re a tall, Black American male, the one question you get asked more than any other in life is, ‘Do you play basketball?’” Keith tells us. “Now, when you’re a tall, Black American male actor, that basketball question comes one question behind, ‘Are you now, or have you ever been Othello?’”
It wasn’t Keith’s dream, he tells us, to portray an “emotionally unstable misogynist murderer.” He was drawn to Hamlet, or even Titania in Midsummer Night’s Dream — any role but the one for which others proclaimed him destined. But he came to see Othello as “maligned, misunderstood, mighty” and started believing it his mission to defend and protect “my brother’s dignity…or maybe my own.”
It is this intense identification of actor with character that apparently inspires Keith (and likely Cobb) to believe in the perfect parallel between the Moor in the world of “Othello” and the black man in today’s America. Although this is arguable (and one would have loved to have seen some counterarguments in the play itself), it nevertheless makes for some fascinating passages. It also helps make “American Moor” problematic as theater.
The problem is evident the moment that the director Michael (Josh Tyson) speaks up from a seat in the audience (he happened to be sitting right next to me! It’s standard for a director during auditions to sit somewhere in the auditorium, though usually not one full of paying customers.)
From the get-go, Keith expresses resentment and contempt for everything the director says, and everything he is – too young and too white to understand the role better than the actor does. Keith is outraged at the director’s having auditioned the two black men before him, whom by their appearance alone Keith proclaims are unsuitable for the role. Keith even perceives as an insult that Michael asks him if he has any questions – Keith feels it’s the director who should be asking Keith the questions.
All of his resentment is expressed, initially, as interior monologue. (This is made clear by Alan Edwards’ expressive lighting design.) The director hears none of Keith’s screeds. But the audience does, and it’s hard for us to know what to make of this massive ill will towards someone he’s never met before. We wonder: Is Cobb creating an outrageously temperamental character, or is the playwright just getting things off his chest?
There is drama when we come to understand what motivates Keith’s anger and resentment – and realize (in Cobb’s masterstroke), that it is just how Keith came to understand Othello’s. Still, “American Moor,” for all its intelligence and the pleasures in Cobb’s performance, ultimately feels like a staged argument.
After all, if Keith has such little respect for any and all directors who take on “Othello,” why audition for them? Why can’t he create his own production? Of course, with “American Moor,” Keith Hamilton Cobb has done just that.
Red Bull at Cherry Lane
Written by Keith Hamilton Cobb; Directed by Kim Weild
Scenic Design by Wilson Chin, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Alan C. Edwards, sound design by Christian Frederickson
Cast: Keith Hamilton Cobb and Josh Tyson
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $47 to $97
American Moor is at the Cherry Lane through October 5